from the zero-oversight dept
By now Techdirt readers should be fairly keyed into FCC head Ajit Pai’s schtick: kill most meaningful oversight over the telecom sector at the industry’s direct behest (including net neutrality and modest privacy rules), then proudly proclaim you’ve unleashed a tidal wave of innovation, investment, and competition. When you look a little closer however, you’ll generally find that the justifications for such moves not only ignore the will of the public and engineering expertise, but are often based entirely on evidence free lobbying claims from the industry itself. You’ll also find the promised competition and innovation never materializes.
Consumer groups say this same, evidence-optional, industry-cozy approach has fueled the FCC’s attempts to hold telecom operators accountable for lagging post-hurricane repairs.
You might recall that Verizon used Hurricane Sandy as cover to effectively stop upgrading huge swaths of its fixed-line networks. Countless customers on traditional copper voice and DSL lines were suddenly left without service or repairs, with Verizon claiming that capped, expensive, frequently unavailable and oft-congested wireless service was a “good enough” replacement for them (those users disagreed). That, in turn, resulted in the previous FCC passing some rules saying that if you’re going to kill off landline service, you need to replace it with something at least equal in quality.
But like everything else Pai touches, those rules, in addition to other consumer protections (like state rules holding carriers accountable for missed deadlines or unfulfilled promises on refunds), were quickly stripped away under the claim it would bring “greater innovation and investment” to the telecom sector. Fast forward to this month, and consumer groups are arguing that much of this mindless deregulation is actively harming recovery efforts in the wake of Hurricane Michael.
Both Ajit Pai and Florida Governor Rick Scott have been issuing press missives claiming they’re “holding carriers accountable.” But consumer groups like Public Knowledge say that both Pai and Scott are oddly forgetting to mention that their blind deregulatory efforts managed to throw some very useful guidance and protections out the window, making the existing problem worse:
“What Governor Scott and Chairman Pai have not done is take responsibility for how their radical deregulation of telephone service has contributed to this unfortunate situation. In 2011, Governor Scott signed the ?Regulatory Reform Act of 2011,? which eliminated virtually all oversight of Florida?s residential telephone service. This included repeal of Florida?s ?Carrier of Last Resort? (COLR) requirements ? rules that require carriers to provide service to everyone in the state ? as well as repeal of Public Service Commission (PSC) regulations governing service blackouts, timeliness of repairs, or regulation of customer billing.
“In November 2017, Chairman Pai repealed many of the safeguards put in place by the Obama FCC following Superstorm Sandy, designed to prevent recurrence of the lengthy loss of service (and in some cases, discontinuance of service) suffered in many areas after Sandy. In June 2018, Chairman Pai further deregulated telephone providers to make it easier to discontinue service after a natural disaster.”
As we’ve long noted, blind deregulation of healthier, more competitive sectors certainly can go a long way toward protecting innovation if the “solutions” being applied aren’t particularly intelligent. But telecom, a sector where natural monopolies wield immense political power, is an entirely different animal. When you gut all the federal and state guidelines governing these companies you don’t magically see innovation and investment spring forth from the sidewalks. Instead you see a doubling down of all the worst behaviors, since neither competition nor healthy regulatory oversight remains to hold bad players accountable.
It’s not clear how long we intend to keep mindlessly deregulating everything in telecom (instead of say, intelligently considering each instance of regulation on its merits) — but it’s fairly obvious any meaningful cultural enlightenment on this point is still well over the horizon.